2 workers killed in blast at Detroit-area store
Thursday, December 30, 2010
WAYNE, Mich. (AP) — Rescue workers spent all day and into the night combing through the pile of crumpled drywall, twisted metal and broken bits of couches, dining sets and dressers that was once William C. Franks Furniture store in the hope that two buried workers might be found alive, just as the store’s owner was.
After more than 12 hours of searching, crews on Wednesday night instead recovered the bodies of a salesman and clerical worker who were killed in the natural gas explosion at the store in downtown Wayne, about 15 miles from Detroit.
Now, investigators must determine whether natural gas caused Wednesday morning’s explosion as crews clean up the mess.
Eric Smith, a fire battalion chief who was assisting from Westland, noted the roof was made of concrete, making it difficult for anyone to survive the disaster.
“You always hold out hope, but with that kind of weight, there wasn’t much to keep the structure from coming down,” Smith said after the second body was removed.
The explosion that happened around 9 a.m. not only destroyed the store, it shattered windows at nearby businesses.
“It sounded like a bomb,” said 47-year-old Lisa Johns, who said she was watching television in bed at her home nearby and rushed to the scene. “The power went off and came back on two or three minutes later.”
Groups of firefighters entered the building four and five at a time, scraping away at the rubble using long poles with hooks on the end. Bobcats and front-loaders moved around the area. Video footage shot from TV helicopters showed dozens of rescuers working on and around the remains of the store.
Wayne City Manager John Zech said rescuers using search dogs found the body of salesman James Zell, 64, of neighboring Westland, in the debris Wednesday night. Later, Shawn Bell, Wayne’s deputy fire marshal, said workers found the body of a woman in the rubble.
The woman’s name was not immediately released. Zech had said earlier the missing woman was a clerical worker for the store in her 50s who also was from Westland.
Owner Paul Franks, who was pulled out shortly after the blast, was in serious condition in the burn unit at the University of Michigan’s medical center.
Consumers Energy spokeswoman Debra Dodd said the utility believed natural gas was involved, but the cause of the blast has not been determined. The company had received a call of a possible gas leak in the area several hours earlier and a worker had been trying to track down the source when the explosion took place, Dodd said.
Police evacuated homes and businesses near the store. Several residents were offered hotel rooms for the night as a safety precaution. City officials late Wednesday declared a state of emergency in a bid for financial help from the state.
Shortly after the blast, from beneath the debris, flames and spewing water, Jennifer Gietzen, 36, heard yelling and saw some movement.
Her husband, Chris Gietzen, and workers from the auto shop the couple manages then ran into the remains, climbed “10 feet high on a pile of twisted everything” and started digging after finding Franks, the burned and struggling store owner.
“He was trying to pull himself out, but his leg was stuck,” Chris Gietzen, 35, told The Associated Press.
Zech said Franks’ father founded the high-end furniture store, which local residents said has been in business for more than 40 years. Mayor Al Haidous described the store as a “jewel” in the city.
Franks “treats everybody like family,” said store delivery worker Russell Brothers, 52, who said he has worked at the store for 18 years. He wasn’t scheduled to work Wednesday but came to see what happened after the explosion.
Franks’ family issued a statement through the hospital expressing appreciation for the support and concern of the community.
“We are focused on his care and treatment at this time and we ask that you respect our privacy. Our concern extends to all others affected by today’s tragedy,” the statement said.
Zech said Zell’s family also asked for privacy and planned a statement on Thursday.
A person who was driving by the store when it exploded was in stable condition at Oakwood Annapolis Hospital, hospital spokeswoman Paula Rivera-Kerr said.
Brothers and saleswoman Deanna Dow helped authorities pinpoint where in the building the missing workers might have been when the explosion occurred.
“We’re just shaken up,” said Dow, who had been scheduled to start work at noon.
Chris Gietzen said the scene was treacherous, but he felt obligated to help.
“I couldn’t be someone who didn’t do that,” said Gietzen, a reserve officer with the Wayne Police Department.
Associated Press writers Corey Williams, David Aguilar, Randi Berris and David N. Goodman in Detroit contributed to this report.